Tiering? Caching? Why it’s important to differ between them.

Some days ago I talked to a colleague from our sales team and we discussed different solutions for a customer. I will spare you the details, but we discussed different solutions and we came across PernixData FVP, HP 3PAR Adaptive OptimizationHP 3PAR Adaptive Flash Cache and DataCore SANsymphony-V. And then the question of all questions came up: “What is the difference?”.

Simplify, then add Lightness

Lets talk about tiering. To make it simple: Tiering moves a block from one tier to another, depending on how often a block is accessed in a specific time. A tier is a class of storage with specific characteristics, for example ultra-fast flash, enterprise-grade SAS drives or even nearline drives. Characteristics can be the drive type, the used RAID level or a combination of characteristics. A 3-tier storage design can consist of only one drive type, but they can be organized in different RAID levels. Tier 1 can be RAID 1 and tier 3 can be RAID 6, but all tiers use enterprise-grade 15k SAS drives. But you can also mix drive types and RAID levels, for example tier 1 with flash, tier 2 with 15k SAS in a RAID 5 and tier 3 with SAS-NL and RAID 6. Each time a block is accessed, the block “heats up”. If it’s hot enough, it is moved one tier up. If it’s less often accessed, the block “cools down” and at a specific point, the block is moved a tier down. If a tier is full, colder blocks will to be moved down and hotter block have to be moved up. It’s a bit simplified, but products like DataCore SANsymphony-V with Auto-Tiering or HP 3PAR Adaptive Optimization are working this way.

Lets talk about caching. With caching a block is only copied to a faster region, which can be flash or even DRAM. The original block isn’t moved, only a copy of the accessed block is copied to a faster medium. If this block is accessed, the data is served from the faster medium. This also works for write I/O. If a block is written, the data is written to the faster medium and will be moved later to the underlying, slower medium. You can’t store block copies until infinity, so less accessed blocks have to be removed from cache if they are not accessed, or if the cache fills up. Examples for caching solutions are PernixData FVP, HP 3PAR Adaptive Flash Cache or NetApp Flash Pool (and also Flash Cache). I lead storage controller cache explicitly not appear in this list. All of the listed caching technologies (except NetApp Flash Cache) can do write-back caching. I wouldn’t recommend read-cache only solutions like VMware vSphere Flash Read Cache, except two situations: Your workload is focused on read I/O and/ or you already own a vSphere Enterprise Plus license, and you do not want to spend extra money.

Tiering or caching? What to choose?

Well… it depends. What is the main goal when using these techniques? Accelerate workloads and making best use of scarce and expensive storage (commonly flash storage).

Regardless of the workload, tiering will need some time to let the often accessed blocks heat up. Some vendors may anticipate this partially by writing data always to the fastest tier. But I don’t think that this is what I would call efficient. One benefit of tiering is, that you can have more then two tiers. You can have a small flash tier, a bigger SAS tier and a really big SAS-NL tier. Usually you will see a 10% flash / 40% SAS / 50% SAS-NL distribution. But as I also mentioned: You don’t have to use flash in a tiered storage design. That’s a plus. On the downside tiering can make mirrored storage designs complex. Heat maps aren’t mirrored between storage systems. If you failover your primary storage, all blocks need to be heaten up again. I know that vendors are working on that. HP 3PAR and DataCore SANsymphony-V currently have a “performance problem” after a failover. It’s only fair to mention it. Here are two examples of products I know well and both offer tiering: In a HP 3PAR Adaptive Optimization configuration, data is always written to the tier, from which the virtual volume was provisioned. This explains the best practice to provision new virtual volumes from the middle tier (Tier 1 CPG). DataCore SANsymphony-V uses the performance class in the storage profile of a virtual disk to determine where data should be written. Depending on the performance class, data is written to the highest available tier (tier affinity is taken into account). Don’t get confused with the tier numbering: Some vendors use tier 0 as the highest tier, others may start counting at tier 1.

Caching is more “spontaneous”. New blocks are written to the cache (usually flash storage, but it can also be DRAM). If a block is read from disks, it’s placed in the cache. Depending on the cache size, you can hold up a lot data. You can lose the cache, but you can’t lose the data ins this case. The cache only holds block copies (okay, okay, written blocks shouldn’t be acknowledged until they are in a second cache/ hose/ $WHATEVER). If the cache is gone, it’s relatively quickly filled up again. You usually can’t have more then two “tiers”. You can have flash and you can have rotating rust. Exception: PernixData FVP can also use host memory. I would call this as an additional half tier. ;) Nutanix uses a tiered storage desing in ther hyper-converged platform: Flash storage is used as read/ write cache, cost effective SATA drives are used to store the data. Caching is great if you have unpredictable workloads. Another interesting point: You can cache at different places in the stack. Take a look at PernixData FVP and HP 3PAR Adaptive Flash Cache. PernixData FVP is sitting next to the hypervisor kernel. HP 3PAR AFC is working at the storage controller level. FVP is awesome to accelerate VM workloads, but what if I have physical database servers? At this point, HP 3PAR AFC can play to its advantages. Because you usually have only two “tiers”, you will need more flash storage as compared to a tiered storage design. Especially then, if you mix flash and SAS-NL/ SATA.

Final words

Is there a rule when to use caching and when to use tiering? I don’t think so. You may use the workload as an indicator. If it’s more predictable you should take a closer look at a tiered storage design. In particular, if the customer wants to separate data from different classes. If you have more to do with unpredictable workloads, take a closer look at caching. There is no law that prevents combining caching and tiering. At the end, the customer requirements are the key. Do the math. Sometimes caching can outperform tiering from the cost perspective, especially if you mix flash and SAS-NL/ SATA in the right proportion.

Tiering? Caching? Why it’s important to differ between them.
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Patrick Terlisten
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Patrick Terlisten

vcloudnine.de is the personal blog of Patrick Terlisten. Patrick has over 15 years experience in IT, especially in the areas infrastructure, cloud, automation and industrialization. Patrick was selected as VMware vExpert (2014 - 2016), as well as PernixData PernixPro.

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Patrick Terlisten
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